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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Some of the books we read as kids took us on adventures in legendary times or through interdimensional closets. Some brought us right back home, to the lives and problems we struggle to understand every day.

"Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," "Then Again, Maybe I Won't," "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing," in those and many other books, Judy Blume channeled the anxieties, fears and secret desires of young readers. She wrote openly about issues like bullying, divorce, sexuality and puberty, honesty that won her millions of fans and the attentions of more than a few censors.

If you write for young people, how have things changed, and how did Judy Blume help change them? Give us a phone call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, ideas to control Black Friday madness. But first Judy Blume joins us here in Studio 3A, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JUDY BLUME: Thank you so much.

CONAN: It's a delight to meet you.

BLUME: Thank you.

CONAN: And congratulations are in order: You're being honored tonight at the Smithsonian with the John P. McGovern Award for your work on behalf of children and the American family.

BLUME: Thank you again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, I understand intellectual freedom is one of the issues you plan to speak on tonight. Are your books still banned some places?

BLUME: Oh yes, oh yes, and so are many, many other writers' books. It hasn't gone away. It's growing in different directions, you know, coming - it's contagious, the desire to control everything in your children's lives, including what they read.

CONAN: I wonder, looking back, some of the things that might have shocked someone 30 years ago or 40 years ago don't seem so alarming these days. Are your books in trouble sometimes because they're by Judy Blume?

BLUME: Well, I have to say that 40 years ago, whenever that was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUME: I know when I started to write, it was the '70s, and throughout that decade, we didn't have any problems with book challenges or censorship. It all started really in a big way in 1980.

CONAN: And why, do you think?

BLUME: Well, it came with the election, the presidential election of 1980, and the next day, I've been told, the censors were crawling out of the woodwork and challenging, like it's our turn now, and we're going to say what we don't want our children to read.

But I think it's more than that. It's what we don't want our children to know, what we don't want to talk to our children about, and if they read it, they'll know it, or they'll question it.

CONAN: There is so much I want to ask you about, but these days, as you know probably much better than I do, there are far more - the line has moved considerably. There are language issues that you never crossed. There are lines of sexuality that you never crossed. There are - yet you defend all of those works.

BLUME: Other people's works?

CONAN: Yes.

BLUME: Oh, absolutely.

CONAN: Is there a line?

BLUME: I don't know what that line would be. I mean, children read. I read widely in my parents' bookshelves. There were no books for me to read as - about young people after I was 12, let's say. I had read them, or I felt that I had read them. And so I was crawling around in the bookshelves at home, and in my house, reading was a very good thing.

So nobody ever told me don't read this, don't read that. Oh, my mother once told me don't read "The Rage to Live" and never look at page 240.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Which of course was the next thing on your list.

BLUME: Totally.

CONAN: In fact, that's probably the way to get kids to read: put up a shelf saying do not read these books.

BLUME: Well, you know, I'm saying to parents these days be careful. You know, you all want them to read the books that you read when you were growing up, and often my books, and I say you will turn them off. The best thing to do is leave the books around the house and from time to time say I really don't think you're ready for that book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And again, they'll turn right to page 242. As you continue, your books live on. There are so many that are still - again, they're selling very well even though...

BLUME: But I'm still writing. You know, I haven't stopped writing yet, yeah.

CONAN: Have you updated some of your first books?

BLUME: Updated only in that many, many years ago, I think 25 years ago or something, my British editor said to me: Judy, why don't you get Margaret out of that belt and pins? Nobody knows about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUME: In fact, belts and pins went out, I would say, probably right after I wrote "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." We went to sticky pads, things that you really know a lot about.

CONAN: For those of us who read boys' books, these are pads to deal with...

BLUME: Oh, everybody has to know about these things.

CONAN: I guess so.

BLUME: And so I changed that. It has nothing to do with the book, but it doesn't stop the reader. And I changed electronics in the "Fudge" books, and I don't know whether that was a good decision or not. The problem is that I wrote those books over many, many, many, many years, and yet the books take place, you know, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade.

And so how do you go from mimeograph machines in the fifth grade to computers in the sixth grade, right. But, you know...

CONAN: That smell of the mimeograph machine is one of the characteristic smells of my childhood.

BLUME: I love that. Oh, I loved it. But, you know, I don't think it has anything to do with the story and the characters. It just - it doesn't. Those are just little details that don't mean anything.

CONAN: We hope to get some calls from your colleagues, those in the children's and - there's so many different categories these days: kids' books by age group, then tweens and young adults.

BLUME: I hate labels. I just hate labels. You know, I'm often introduced as a YA author. I say: Wait, I never wrote - maybe "Forever" was a YA book. Maybe "Tiger Eyes" was a YA book, except there was no such category then. So, you know, I wrote for young readers, but I just wrote.

I'm writing a book right now, I have no idea who the audience is going to be - not a smart thing to do.

CONAN: Well, your publisher might have some questions for you. But I'm old enough to remember that YA were the first two initials of the New York Giants' quarterback. But in any case, that'll date me if nothing else does. We'd like to hear from those who write young people's books, round it off that way. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Though we'd like to know how the business has changed over the years and how Judy Blume helped change it. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Josh(ph) and Josh with us from Conway in Arkansas.

JOSH: Hi, I just want to thank you for writing good books for kids because I grew up in a home-school environment, was home-schooled my whole life. And I didn't have many peer-to-peer interactions, you know, with kids my own age. And so I started to realize that just by reading your books that problems that Peter had in the "Fudge" books were ones that kids all over the place had, and they weren't just problems that I had.

And it helped me get those interactions and that knowledge, you know, about the lives of other kids my age in a way I wouldn't have otherwise been able to get them. And it inspired me to write stories for my younger sisters in a way that didn't just gloss over the life of children in the way that a lot of other kids' books seemed to do.

I mean, other kids' books made them seem, you know, just bright and shiny. But your kids' books really just - Peter's life wasn't bad, but he had struggles just like I did. And that was - it's been a huge inspiration to me, also just a huge inspiration on how I interact with my younger siblings because I am the oldest in my family.

BLUME: Well, that is very kind of you, and I - it makes me really happy to think of you when you were a kid at home and reading my books and, you know, gaining some insight into what it was like to be out there.

CONAN: So the "Fudge" books were, in a way, your playground, it's where you talked to the other kids?

JOSH: Exactly, and since I was the oldest, I thought that the struggles that I had with my younger sisters specifically were just - I was the only older brother. I felt like a terrible older brother because I didn't like them, I didn't always like them, and I always thought they were annoying at times.

But then just seeing that helped me realize that I was just really the average older brother, and that in itself was a huge help to me in just my own personal growth because I didn't feel as bad anymore.

BLUME: Well, I'm glad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Did you keep up with the writing, Josh?

JOSH: I did. I kept up. I started writing children's stories when I was probably, I don't know, 10 or 11. And I was also directly influenced by Roald Dahl and kind of saw him - his writing's kind of a little bit darker, you know, but always just with - you know, kind of focused on the fact that, you know, that as you're a child, you're developing into an adult, kind of, you know, without knowing it, and how the interactions with those around you, especially adults, can directly influence how you see the world in general.

And so I always write keeping in mind the fact that - trying to also inspire adults at the same time to be kind to the children that they're around and to just realize that while this may seem annoying, and it might get on their nerves that in the same time they are just trying to - just trying to make it.

And it's always been - your books have always been a direct inspiration to me just I've kept up with them. I keep reading every time you write something new, and they're always great, just always, always just a pleasure to read your work.

BLUME: Thank you so much, Josh.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call.

JOSH: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: You said you don't know what age, you have written some books specifically for grownups.

BLUME: I have, yes.

CONAN: And how is that different?

BLUME: The process is the same, impossibly difficult for me no matter how many books I've written. It's always - first draft is a killer, and I always say I'm never going to do this again. I tell my husband, you know, I can't do this. I'm going to burn it. And he says okay, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUME: He's heard it before. In fact with "Summer Sisters," I was so terrified of allowing the book to be published after working on it for more than three years and 20 drafts I said I want to give back the advance, I want to get rid of it, and I don't want it ever to be published. And George is very easygoing...

CONAN: George, your husband.

BLUME: Yes, he is, and he said: Well, I'll tell you what. We'll just go away. We'll let the book be published, and you'll come back, and it'll be all over.

CONAN: Three years, it seems like a long time.

BLUME: To write a book?

CONAN: Yeah.

BLUME: Does it?

CONAN: Yeah. Is that normal?

BLUME: That was a very long and painful process, and I believe I'm in one of those again now.

CONAN: Do you write better on a deadline or not?

BLUME: I don't - I've never really written on a deadline. I don't show it to anybody until I feel that I have a decent draft, and...

CONAN: And anybody including George?

BLUME: Oh yeah definitely. He says: I want to read something of this - because I talk about it all the time - I want to read something. When can I read something? And I say: No, maybe next year.

CONAN: We're talking with Judy Blume. She'll be honored tonight at The Smithsonian. If you write for young readers, how have things changed? How did Judy Blume help change them? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Judy Blume is our guest today, author of course of "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret," "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing," "Forever" and dozens of other books for kids and a handful for adults, too. She's in town to receive the Smithsonian McGovern Award tonight.

If you write for young readers, how have things changed? How did Judy Blume help change them? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Sara(ph), Sara calling from Columbus.

SARA: Hi, Judy.

BLUME: Hi, Sara.

SARA: It's such an honor to talk to you. I read you for years.

BLUME: Thank you.

SARA: And I write for young readers now, middle-grade readers. And what you helped bring us to is the ability to write honestly, in the subjects that they're dealing with and facing in their everyday lives and in the language. And so thank you for that.

BLUME: I'm so glad you're writing for middle-grade readers because I'm afraid today everybody thinks the sexiest, smartest thing to do is write for YA. And I worry about the middle-grade readers, because, you know, if they don't learn to love books when they're middle-graders, when are they going to learn to love them?

SARA: And that's what I do love about middle grade, two things: one, that they will stay up to read, as opposed to falling asleep as you read: and two, that they don't have to be about vampires or such dark subjects. The world is really just opening up for them.

CONAN: As long as they make good flashlights, I think kids are going to stay up reading books.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sara, was there one of Judy Blume's books - I assume you read her as a kid?

SARA: Yes.

CONAN: And what book was it that opened, well, you to this new world?

SARA: Well, I have to say two of the books that made me really love writing were "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," of course, and "Deanie," although I will now confess for the first time that it was "Forever" that was passed around amongst me and my Catholic-school-girl friends in the eighth grade.

BLUME: You're not the only one, I promise, Sara.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And did the nuns try to confiscate it?

SARA: We mostly hid it from our mothers, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And did they try to confiscate it?

SARA: We never let them know. I hope mine's not listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sara, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

BLUME: Thank you, Sara.

SARA: Thank you.

CONAN: As you, I'm sure, get dozens of letters and probably, at this point, messages on Facebook from people like that all the time.

SARA: I do, and it's lovely, and I tweet. And so I have a wonderful Twitter universe out there, and we're always talking. Many, many people who follow me and who I follow in return are writers for young people, and I feel this sense of community.

BLUME: You know, when I started to write, I had no sense of community. I was so alone that at one point I thought I wanted to do anything else except lock myself up in that little room and write again. I thought I want to be an editor, maybe someone will give me a job as an editor.

But today's writers, for any age group, can find, easily, a community.

CONAN: You say you didn't write to deadline, yet when you started, I've read, you had two hours a day while your kids were in preschool. That's writing to deadline. You had two hours to write every day.

BLUME: Yes, and I did, and I was quite prolific in those days. I used to think when my kids grew up and were out, you know, on their own, oh, then I'd have all the time in the world to write. And in fact, it's just the opposite. I was so - you know, I stuck to my schedule, and I didn't let anything get in the way. But on the other hand, nobody knew who I was, and nobody made any demands on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUME: And so it was much easier. But I am back in a very good writing routine right now, and aside from this Thanksgiving week, I'm working every day, seven days a week.

CONAN: Here's an email from James(ph) in Boulder: My first novel, "The Assassin's Dream," is a dystopian view of a future world that reviewers compare to "1984" and "Brave New World," which we all read as teenagers. I worry that the several sex scenes might make the novel objectionable to parents or too much for young adults.

And then I asked a teenager on an airplane if I might look at her chick-lit novel. I'm afraid I actually blushed at the opening scene, which was far more graphic than anything I had written. Times, indeed, have changed.

BLUME: Yes, times have changed. You know, times are always changing, and there's a cyclical changing of the times. You know, we go back. We go forward. Censors come after books that are particularly popular. There are a lot of books out there that probably have very graphic sexual descriptions and other descriptions in them.

But unless - after all, the censors don't read. You know, so they have to wait until they know that kids are really into something to look for the badness in it and say we have to get rid of this, the evil, as they call it.

CONAN: And there's always a new evil.

BLUME: Oh, there's evil everywhere. It's lurking everywhere.

CONAN: I've wonder if you've gotten responses: Can't we go back to the good days of wholesome books like Judy Blume?

BLUME: Oh, you know, that just happened this year. That happened in a big brouhaha with the Wall Street Journal, which I won't get into now, and somebody said: Why can't we have those good, wholesome books like Judy Blume? And I was like, on the floor, saying wait a minute. I didn't even like it that she said that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go next to Shane(ph), Shane with us from Reading in California.

SHANE: Oh, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Shane, you're on the air.

SHANE: Thank you. Judy, you mentioned that you're writing a book now, but you don't particularly have a particular age group in mind because it made me wonder. I've written a book, and it's based on a style like Roald Dahl. He wrote a book called "Nifty Nursery Rhymes," and he changed the story of the Cinderella and Snow White to different endings.

But he would use four-letter words that you probably wouldn't want little children reading. But I loved the humor. So I ended up writing a number of stories that kids under 90 could enjoy because you don't have to shield it from children. There's nothing sleazy in it but enough adult humor that keeps it fun.

And the book got published. I see it's still available on Amazon and barnesandnoble.com and things, and yet no local bookstore will put it in the children's section. They'll - it's not for little children particularly. Or then they'll put it in poetry because it rhymes. But it's not dark like typical poetry might be.

So sometimes it seems they'll pigeonhole your book based on the title or cover or what they presume it to be and then maybe market it in an area you wouldn't expect. And I wondered perhaps if you've suffered that or if you just don't give that a thought.

BLUME: Well, let me just tell you when I either got "It's Me, Margaret," came out, I proudly - I was with my two little children, and I was in a bookstore. I can't even remember, it might have been a department store, the bookstore section, we had them then. And I asked for my book. And she said: Oh, honey, that's shelved with the Bibles.

And I said it's shelved with the Bibles? Why would it be shelved with the Bibles? And she said: Well, look here. And she pulled it down, and it said Margaret Simon, Age 12, chats with God, which she had read as Margaret Simon, 12 chats with God. And so it was shelved with the Bibles.

I have had problems with bookstores that put "Forever" next to "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing." You know, now we have YA sections in bookstores. I think that wouldn't happen. But yeah, yours is a book that appeals to all age groups. And so, you know, I think you just can't worry about that. You just have to be happy if it's there in the store.

CONAN: Shane, I think you've got the next title for your book, "12 Chats With God."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHANE: There we go. Okay, well, thank you very much for your answer there.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

BLUME: Thank you, Shane.

CONAN: We asked our followers on Twitter what Judy Blume taught them, and here are a few responses. Kalenski(ph) learned that she would survive her parents' divorce. JulyintheLoo(ph) learned that it's normal to be really, really weird, and happy endings are always possible. LisaRomero(ph) learned that life is unfair and difficult at times but to pay attention and learn from it, you'll be okay, that you are okay.

From DinaBonanti(ph): Judy Blume taught me what the inside of a bordello looked like.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I didn't - I must have missed that one. Then I had to ask my mom what a bordello was, and she was not amused. My yesterday is Judy Blume.

BLUME: Oh, that is so lovely. I'll tell you about the bordello. That was my bathroom when I was growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. My mother decided to decorate our bathroom - we only had one - and it had lavender tile, and my mother chose a black and lavender wild, floral wallpaper. And my father said: Effie(ph), this looks like a bordello.

And of course I had no idea what a bordello was, either. But I did write that in because Sally Freedman is my most autobiographical character.

CONAN: Let's go next to Christine(ph), Christine with us from Salt Lake City.

CHRISTINE: Hi, I'm a children's librarian in Salt Lake City and putter around a little bit in writing. But I found it interesting to see the limiting that the library especially puts on materials but that we also limit it in our minds, and children especially judge materials by their cover, unfortunately, sometimes. And I wanted to let you know that the book - your books are definitely circulating better with their new covers.

BLUME: Thank you. And I love those - the new - you mean the new Random House paperback covers...

CHRISTY: Mm-hmm.

BLUME: ...and the new "Fudge" covers.

CHRISTY: Yes.

BLUME: Yeah. You do have to update those covers. Although my readers will tell you, no, no - we want the covers that we grew up with, you know? And I say, hey, let this generation have their own covers to remember.

CHRISTY: I know. I know. Because...

CONAN: Well, there's just the opportunity to mark it a retro library edition of Judy Blume.

CHRISTY: Yes. Yes. There should be a special section. Actually, I hate that the library feels that it has to limit and locate everything in it. Do you feel like that is permeating throughout society? Like, I feel like, you know, you can do-it-yourself grocery store and do-it-yourself everything, but you also do-it-yourself books. You go to your section, you pick out those books, and that's all you read.

BLUME: Are you saying that the library is limiting, by age group, where a child can go?

CHRISTY: Yes. It doesn't allow you to expand your horizons into the classics of Jane(ph) Ann(ph). And further you're reading, you feel confined to these sections and to the covers that call to you when sometimes library can't afford the new covers and all of these things. And so I appreciate the newness of your books, and I'm excited to get kids excited about your books all over again.

BLUME: Thank you so much. I'm sad that kids are not allowed to travel within the library. I mean, again, you know, because of my own experience, and why did I continue to love to read, because there was always something new. I was lucky, I had a home library to explore. Because, I think, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the '50s, I was not allowed to go into the adult section of the library. So that that might still be going on, is too bad, I think.

CHRISTY: Yeah. Well, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Christy. OK.

BLUME: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today with Judy Blume, the author - what's your most recent book?

BLUME: Oh, my gosh, what's my - well, it's a series of four books for very young readers, and they're called "The Pain and the Great One" books. That was great fun, because I got to have a wonderful illustrator in James Stevenson. And I've never done that before.

CONAN: She's with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Here's an email from Radu(ph) : This everything goes for kids stance is ridiculous. Should the elementary school library also be stocked with rosy, positive portrayals of how to raise your social status through bullying. He's suggesting, I think, there is a line – please.

BLUME: Well, I mean, the collections are chosen by professionals, one hopes. And the books are published by professionals who believe in what they're publishing. I mean, it's not anything goes. It really isn't. There is a sense of appropriateness, but different families have different ideas about what's appropriate at different times.

CONAN: Here's an email from Ellen in Ann Arbor: I'm a writer who's never written for kids. How do you keep the language for kids up to date now that everything is Twitterized?

BLUME: You know, I find myself sending emails now, and I look at them and I think, oh, my gosh, I'm writing, in an email, the way I write now in Twitter. I don't think young kids tweet very much. Language, up to date - I listen to kids a lot. But I don't do, you know, what's up to date this very minute in New York or in L.A. I don't know what it is. I don't know how I get that. And do I get it right or don't I? I'm writing a book, now, that takes place in the '50s. So I remember. So I'm not so worried about it. People say, oh, my gosh.

CONAN: Let's go next, to Tara. Tara with us from Denver.

TARA: Hey, how's it going?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

BLUME: Hi.

TARA: It is an honor to talk to you. I just wanted to share a story with you. When I was in elementary school, all the neighborhood - girls in the neighborhood were reading, "Hey God? It's Me Margaret," and would read every day in the backyard. And then, me and my neighbor would go in the mirror and raise our hands and say, I must, I must, I must increase my bust. And that was one of my fondest memories in elementary school is just chanting, I must increase my bust.

BLUME: I hope it worked better for you than it did for me.

TARA: Oh, I think it worked great for me.

BLUME: OK.

TARA: But it was, you know, that was our childhood. That was what we read. My mom is a librarian for an elementary school here. And seeing all the libraries go south is very sad. But, man, I've always had your books on my shelves.

BLUME: Thank you. And it is sad, and I worry about libraries as well as bookstores.

CONAN: Tara, thanks very much.

TARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Shannon in. Shannon's with us from St. Augustine.

SHANNON: Hi. I had a question. I am a young writer from St. Augustine, and I'm in college and just recently had a baby and getting married and everything. And I really, as a child, looked to your books and found inspiration, and that's why I'm a writer today. And I was just wondering what kept you motivated in the beginning without the success, without the encouragement of others telling you, you know, what a great writer you were. I was just wondering how you sparked motivation within yourself, because I'm, you know, needing something to push forward with, as far as my writing career is concerned?

BLUME: It's all about your determination, I think, as much as anything. There are a lot of people with talent, but it's that determination. I mean, you know, I would cry when the rejections came in - the first couple of times, anyway - and I would go to sleep feeling down, and I - but I would wake up in the morning optimistic and saying, well, maybe they didn't like that one, but wait till they see what I'm going to do next. And I think you just have to keep going. You know what, the thing is, is that nobody writes unless they have to. So if you have to write because it's inside you, then you will.

SHANNON: That is truly inspirational advice, and I really just want to thank you. I'm, like, shaking just talking to you on the phone. I really have appreciated your work my entire childhood. And if anything, I hope that you know - I hope I can speak for everybody that's listening - is that you have been such an inspiration in the literary world. And thank you for writing.

BLUME: Thank you so, so much.

CONAN: And we're going to send that last answer in an audio packet to your husband George so he can play it to you when you start complaining about not being able to get the book done. Judy Blume, good luck tonight. Thank you so much.

BLUME: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

CONAN: Coming up: Black Friday brings more reports of violence in and around shopping centers. Join us for ideas to control the madness. This is NPR News.

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